Soon-to-be Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller known as a "fixer"

WINONA – Jeremy Miller is chief financial officer for his family's scrapyard, head coach of his son's football team, a real estate investor, owner of a hat company, long-distance runner, nonprofit board member, children's book author and soon-to-be restaurateur.

Now the 38-year-old father of three from Winona is about to become the top Republican in Minnesota government.

"A good friend of mine said, 'If you want to get something done, ask a busy person,' " Miller said.

Miller doesn't play the grandstanding and political games that often absorb so much time at the Capitol, colleagues said, making him a go-to when negotiations are stuck. Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, calls Miller "the fixer" because he repeatedly gets pulled into budget stalemates.

His reputation as a listener and consensus-builder will be tested as Miller heads into a legislative session in which lawmakers are set to clash over public safety and COVID-19 — and where they will attempt to redraw all 201 legislative districts as the 2022 election looms.

Republicans picked Miller as the face of their caucus and key negotiator after Sen. Paul Gazelka stepped down to run for governor, placing the self-proclaimed "behind-the-scenes kind of guy" at the center of political skirmishes during a heated election year.

"I think we'll have a good working relationship. It's a matter of whether his caucus is able to stand with him," said Sen. Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, who is simultaneously stepping into the minority leader job.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she expects that, similar to her experience with Gazelka, they will be able to push past partisan divides to get deals done. Miller, Hortman and DFL Gov. Tim Walz will make up the "Big Three" who are poised to hash out differences next year on everything from police funding and accountability measures to a public infrastructure bonding bill.

Hortman, who also worked for her family business that sells used auto parts, said she has bonded with Miller over their shared background and described him as a "coalition-builder ... not interested in political discord for the sake of political discord." But while some GOP senators called Miller a moderate, Hortman dubbed him "a conservative's conservative."

On a bookshelf in his office at Miller Scrap is a bobblehead doll of former President Donald Trump. A couple of shelves above it, there's a picture of Miller and President Joe Biden posing together, all smiles. When asked about his support for the former president, Miller said if Trump were still in office, "I'm pretty sure Americans would not have been left behind in Afghanistan, there wouldn't be a crisis at the border, and people would be growing our economy, rather than suffering from inflationary costs."

He was raised with conservative values, Miller said, and if Republicans take control of state government in 2022, he said he would work to rein in state spending and phase out the state income tax on Social Security benefits. He said Senate Republicans haven't talked about whether they would push for abortion restrictions like those in Texas but have talked about election security.

"There's still a lot of concerns surrounding election integrity," Miller said. "If there's anyone who doesn't think that the process is fair, to me that's concerning."

Republican colleagues described Miller as the right person for the moment. He is well-liked by people on both sides of the aisle and avoids extremes, making him a stable pick at a time when the state GOP Party has been rocked by scandal after a major donor was charged with sex trafficking and Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan was ousted. Republicans also hope the younger senator can help attract new candidates as they try to hang on to their Senate majority. It helps, colleagues noted, that he is extremely competitive.

At his son's football practice Thursday evening, Miller — who went from planning to watch the games to becoming head coach — was focused and serious as he shepherded elementary school students in full football pads through drills. Miller, who regularly runs half marathons and other charitable virtual races, also described himself as competitive and said he has long been fueled by the sense that he is an underdog.

That came from growing up as one of the few Jewish kids in Winona, he said, who struggled with reading and was the youngest of three brothers. After high school, he headed to Denver for college, excited to get out of his hometown. But after a year, he returned to work for the family business and got an associate degree in accounting from Minnesota State College Southeast. Working with his father at the scrap business, Miller said he learned the importance of relationships and different ways to get a deal done.

"I have some customers who are very proper, to other customers who every other word is a swear word," Miller said. "You just have to adapt to meet that customer's needs."

His family also encouraged him to give back to the community. When Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, called ahead of the 2010 election to try to recruit Miller's father — who served as mayor of Winona for 16 years — he directed Senjem to Jeremy instead.

Miller said he knew almost nothing about the state Senate when, by process of elimination, he decided to go for the seat. He had been interested in public office but didn't want to run for City Council when his father was mayor. And the state representative for the area, Democrat Gene Pelowski, was his former teacher and a family friend. He won the seat in a purple district by less than 1% on his first attempt.

After a little while at the Capitol, then-Sen. Roger Reinert, a Democrat from Duluth, leaned over to Miller during a transportation committee meeting and asked if he wanted to help form a Purple Caucus that would work across the aisle. Other GOP members had rejected Reinert's offer, but Miller signed on, and eventually about a third of the Senate joined the caucus, including López Franzen.

"When you are not from the Twin Cities, and you got a wife and kids that are in a community a couple hours away ... you are reminded every single day" of what you are giving up to serve in St. Paul, Reinert said. "Sen. Miller is someone who is really interested in seeing stuff get done because of what he's sacrificing to be there."

Miller ascended to Senate president in 2019, presiding over debates on the Senate floor and ruling on quibbles. That role helped launch him into the majority leader post, a title he will not formally assume until legislators vote during the session.

Miller has maintained a penchant for humility — "I'm rarely, if ever, the smartest person in the room, even if I'm the only person in the room," he joked Thursday — and hasn't made a splash with showy bills at the Capitol in recent years. But colleagues said he was instrumental in many deals, including ending the ban on Sunday liquor sales and ensuring that first responders who get COVID-19 qualify for workers' compensation.

"I think there's two types of legislators. There's legislators who are strong on policy, and there's legislators that are strong on relationships. And I believe to be successful, you have to have the relationship skills above any," said Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, who said Miller is able to build those connections.

The initial test of Miller's approach as majority leader is imminent.

State leaders are waiting on a working group to decide how to divvy up $250 million for pandemic front-line workers. Their plan to approve the deal in a special session this month could be derailed. Walz wants Senate Republicans to commit to a narrowly focused special session and agree not to remove Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm — a move some GOP members, dissatisfied with the administration's pandemic approach, have contemplated.

On this first negotiation, Miller appears adamant.

"Once that working group reaches an agreement, Senate Republicans are ready to come back for a special session," Miller said. "And anything related to vaccine mandates or vaccine passports or commissioners, or any other issue, should be fair game."

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044